The Other Side
Directed by: Roberto Minervini.
Written by: Roberto Minervini & Denise Ping Lee and Diego Romero.
Featuring: Mark Kelley, Lisa Allen, James Lee Miller.
At what point does a documentary cease to be a documentary, and become something else? Italian born, Texas based filmmaker Roberto Minervini has made a career about this increasingly blurry line between fiction and documentary filmmaking – a line that has been with film since at least Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). In his films, he asks people to essentially play themselves for his camera - constructing a loose sort of narrative out of their real lives. In The Other Side, the first of his films I have seen, this means he mainly focuses his camera on Mark Kelley – a meth addict and sometimes dealer of the same, who is casually racist, blames Obama for everything, and will inject his pregnant wife to be with drugs, and have sex with her on camera. How much of what we see is staged for the camera?
If Minervini’s intent were to simply mock these people, than the film would be morally repugnant. Fortunately, I don’t really think that is what his intent is here (still, if the injection of a pregnant woman with meth was real, and captured on camera, then it still may be). Kelley isn’t a “good” guy per se – he is an addict and a criminal, who is currently dodging a 3 month prison sentence. But he’s doing that so that he can be there for the end of his mother’s life – who is dying and doesn’t have much longer left. He also wants, desperately, to get clean – and hopes the jail will help him. He doesn’t seem part curly violent, and he does seem nice to his fiancé throughout the film. He may very well be racist – casually or not – most of that racism seems to come out only when talking to his buddies – and is mainly directed at Obama. While he, his friends and family spend much of their time ranting and raving against Obama, much of it is a hell of lot less racist than some of the things said about Obama on TV or at Republican rallies. The people in the film are powerless and have been rejected by society – so in many ways, they are simply rejecting it right back. If society doesn’t care about them, they don’t much care for it.
The film runs about 90 minutes, and the first 65 or so are spent with Mark and his friends and family. The last 25 are spent with a militia, who say a hell of a lot worse things about Obama than Mark and company do – even have a prostitute give a simulated blowjob while wearing an Obama mask. They are paranoid in the extreme, think that everyone is coming for their guns, and worries about a UN invasion of America. They’re angry, goddammit, and they’ll show everyone just how angry they are. How do they do this? Shoot a bunch of bullets at an empty car in the middle of the forest, before burning it. That will show them!
Minervini doesn’t make any specific connection between Mark’s story and those of the militia – but it isn’t very hard to see one. Both sets are society’s rejects, angry at Obama, racist, clinging to either their drugs or their paranoid fantasies/guns to get them through their miserable lives. Mark looks downright harmless next to those wackjobs.
Watching the film, I could never stop wondering just how made up the film was – how staged. To be honest, almost all of it feels staged. The phony strands of narrative feel forced, Mark’s big speech about getting clean doesn’t sound natural, I don’t really believe Minervini actually shot a scene of a woman being inject with drugs while pregnant. The sex certainly seems real, but also feels rehearsed – and strikes me as being there mainly for shock value (same with the pregnant lady shooting drugs for that matter). Even the gun nuts at the end seem to be performing for the camera more than anything.
Is anything in the film real? Does Minervini find people desperate to be filmed, and then goose them to be their worst selves in front of a camera? Are they acting, or not? Clearly some of it is staged (no, the filmmakers didn’t just happen upon a naked Mark in the forest).
Movies that blend the line between fiction and documentary have been around forever. I already Nanook of the North, but there’s also Luis Bunuel’s masterpiece Land with Bread (1933) and probably the best of them all is Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) – one of the greatest films of all time, among countless other example. While parsing fiction from reality in those films can be interesting, the movie itself has to be interesting on its own – and that’s really where Minevini’s film fails. Much of the film is there for shock value – but the whole thing seems so phony that I never believed any of it, so I couldn’t possibly be shocked by it.